First Take: ‘Cats Running Wild
Why Kentucky is like my elementary school-self…
That rumbling sound you heard at approximately 10:27 p.m. ET last night was the collective groan of a national audience as ESPN experienced technical difficulties in their coverage of the Kentucky/Connecticut heavyweight bought at the Garden. Luckily for all parties involved, the issue was solved, crisis was averted and all was again right with the world.
It’s rare that a highly anticipated non-conference match up in December lives up to the hype – it just doesn’t happen. One team inevitably isn’t sharp yet, having played a slew of guarantee games and when faced with a legitimate foe, simply crumble under the bright light of the countries expectations for an epic performance. Well, both Kentucky and Connecticut got it right last night.
I was more excited for this game than I was for the Wildcat’s match up with North Carolina over the weekend, why you ask? In beating the Tar Heels, John Calipari’s squad had passed their first real test, so we knew they were good, we knew they could play. That alone had me excited for this contest, not even taking into account the heated rivalry between Calipari and the Huskies Jim Calhoun that dates back to when the former was first building his reputation while coaching at UMass.The first 3:24 had me on my feet, Kentucky was that good. They hit everything, John Wall was breathtaking, UConn was intimidated and in the blink of an eye it was a 12-0 game. In this run, Kentucky proved again what the most underrated aspect of their game is – they have a huge frontcourt. I saw it for periods in the Carolina game, and it was brutally obvious in the opening sequences of this one; Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton can make it downright impossible to get a clean shot off in the paint. The ‘Cats guards funnel unsuspecting players towards the middle of the court and then its game over. Connecticut didn’t score until four minutes into the game, I don’t think they had an easy look until the second half. Even still, I give the Huskies credit, they took a shot in the mouth and didn’t back down.
After the game, Calipari said his 9-0 squad should be 4-5 – I’m not entirely inclined to disagree with him. Right now Kentucky reminds me a lot of myself when I was an elementary school giant growing up. I was within striking distance of 6-feet tall before I even cracked junior high, I towered over my peers, of course I was also awkward and timid as a result of this. I can remember one specific instance when I tripped in front of a crowd and the other kids in the immediate vicinity broke out in hysterics (apparently when giants fall its funny). Our gym teacher who was nearby swooped in, helped me up and then proceeded to berate the other kids by saying they were damn lucky I was nice and too naïve to realize how dominant I could be with my size – I could have been ruling the playground. The Wildcats are no different.
A more seasoned team wouldn’t have necessarily put Connecticut away after the 12-0 start, but they would have done a better job keeping them down. This team is so good and so talented, but based purely on basketball IQ right now, they aren’t even being talked about as a top 25 team. Even John Wall – who scored a career-high 25 points in brilliant fashion, who has been dubbed the hands down top pick in June, who Roy Williams called the best point guard to enter the college ranks since Jason Kidd – has a ways to go. The potential is scary right now. Kemba Walker, who is considered one of the fastest players in the country, spent much of the game’s opening minute whipping his head around to see where Wall had just sped off too. The speed and explosiveness are terrifying if you’re observing them as an opposing defender. Amidst all of this hype surrounding Wall though, people have failed to notice that Patrick Patterson has added a smooth 18-foot jumper to his arsenal, and in doing so, likely worked himself into lottery discussion for the 2010 Draft. Kentucky has yet to play a good basketball game, like I said after the UNC game, they are skating by on talent alone. They are beating some of the best teams in the country while executing poorly and making freshman mistakes. The potential here is awesome.
One final note on this game before I start getting accused of only writing about games in which Kentucky plays. Jerome Dyson is one of the best players in the country right now. Excluding the fact that he is one of only two players to be averaging 20, 5 and 5 (Manny Harris of Michigan is the other), he just makes big plays when his team needs it the most. That is all.
Now of course there were other games being played last night believe it or not – 51 in fact. Saint Joseph’s gave #3 Villanova a great run in the Battle for Philadelphia at my favorite basketball venue on Earth – The Palestra. What I’ve always loved about that arena is the way the lighting falls on the court, and the court only, it makes the entire game seem as though it’s one of those color photos taken during the 1960′s when color photos were still fairly young in their development. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the stands aren’t bathed in light like the players – either way, I love the effect.
The most valuable player for the other Wildcats right now is without a doubt Antonio Pena. After two seasons of modest numbers (5 ppg, 4 rpb) the 6-8, 235-pound junior decided he was going to become a frontcourt force. Not only have the numbers jumped to 13 and 10 through nine games, but Pena gives ‘Nova an interior presence they haven’t had in quite some time. Don’t think for a second with the kind of guards they have that one solid forward inside can’t make a big difference come March.
Purdue, West Virginia and Gonzaga all cruised, so naturally everyone will be looking at #22 Wisconsin and asking why they had to screw up an otherwise smooth night for the top 25. Yes, the Badgers lost to Green Bay, but I don’t consider this an upset. For all of its notoriety as “That League Butler Plays In” the Horizon League is a very solid conference. Green Bay, Wright State and Cleveland State are all legitimate teams in addition to the Bulldogs (who are underachieving right now), so a win for the Phoenix last night isn’t all that inconceivable for me.
Harvard beat Boston College for the second straight year. There’s something about saying that, that is fun.
St. John’s took down Georgia in the prequel to the Kentucky/UConn game (See! I can’t stop talking about it!). Granted, a win over a mediocre SEC team, even when Trey Thompkins is playing well (not in the second half) is cause for the Johnnies to be excited as they now stand at 7-1. In years past, the Red Storm would lose these games, they would lose to teams like Siena as well, who they beat by the way. Now by no means does this signal a return to the days of Lou Carnesecca and Chris Mullin, but a solid St. John’s team is great news for New York and even better news for the Big East as whole.
New Mexico ousted San Diego 82-78 last night to improve to 9-0 on the season and set up a very interesting matchup with Texas A&M on Saturday. I’m not sure if this one is going to be televised nationally yet – if it is I’ll bet my life it’s on the Versus network – but I’ll be doing my best to follow it along, because it will probably be the best game that gets no love going into the weekend.
Lastly, I’m ready to dub the SEC/Big East Invitational as the best conference challenge this season. We got Kentucky/UConn last night and tonight we’re treated to Syracuse taking on Florida. I feel like John Wall staring at the Warriors defense a year from now – foaming at the mouth and ready to run.